Beneath a panorama of the Italian countryside, Wile E. Coyote chased Road Runner while Yogi Berra played ball.
Before he died on September 22nd at the age of 90, Berra had slowed down some. But when I was about six or seven years old, after he rocketed a curveball into the stands, he’d round the bases and then run through Federico Mucci’s painting of Italian hilltops that hung above my family’s TV.
Sometimes the wily cartoon character would pop out of the comic book I was flipping through, fill his lungs, and try to catch the all-star catcher. The Yoge (what my dad called him) would disappear, then there he’d be again, triumphantly extending his home run trot up and down the impastoed backroads winding through the landscape of his ancestors.
Just before the 8 on the back of his uniform disappeared into distant trees and mountains, the road-running slugger would change course and head back, growing larger (but never more than 5’7″) as he ran, while the freight train behind my Bergen County, New Jersey, apartment supplied a soundtrack of chugging and whistling that would follow him back to the dugout beneath the panoramic Italian countryside.
If I were a kid living in the Umbrian hilltop village of Casalina, Italy, where the Church of Madonna dei Bagni is located, I’d lie on the floor and wriggle around beneath its colorful maiolica plaques like a kid in a candy store. Wouldn’t need a television. The 700 or so hand-painted ceramic tiles plastered into the church walls would unfold like the innings of a ball game or comic book panels — grids ruling two of Yogi’s loves: playing baseball and reading comics.
I read that the “Bagni” part of Madonna dei Bagni was adopted because it is situated near a stream, although I saw no sign of water. All I saw was a sign with an arrow pointing to the nearby town of Deruta, a center for ceramics in Italy since the 1300s. At any rate, Bagni means baths. Nowadays the word refers to bathrooms, which is fitting for this sanctuary in that it is a down-to-earth reference, like the unpretentious plaques and the building itself.
The painted terracotta panels of Madonna dei Bagni, each with its own painted frame, date from 1657 to about 2012 (and counting). What other pictorial project stretches so gracefully over so much time? Yet try to find a guidebook that mentions this little treasure. With their murmur of visual voice-overs, ceramic stories branch out from the oak “healing tree” that is preserved on the altar behind a glass enclosure. Also protected by the glass is a sculpture of the Madonna with her infant son. On almost every votive tile, the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta, or For Grace Received), appear alongside a portrayal of the Madonna with baby Jesus on her lap.
Mother and child, in rapport with the oak, play pivotal roles in the tale at the root of the sanctuary. You see, about 400 years ago a local merchant found in the woods a ceramic shard decorated with an image of the Virgin and Child. It’s the same shard that’s in the glass enclosure beside the sculpture. In order to protect it from any further damage, the merchant wedged the illustrated fragment between the branches of an oak tree — the same oak that’s now part of the church’s altar.
Years later, with his wife deathly ill, this same merchant returned to that same site and prayed to that same Madonna image for his wife’s recovery. Sure enough, upon his return home shortly thereafter, he found her busy with housework . . . cured! Word spread, and ever since, local residents have been commissioning these relatively same-sized “ex-voto” tiles after surviving surgery, robbery, drowning, concentration camp internment, demonic possession, car crash, bull bite, dog bite — you name it — as thanks to the Virgin Mary for what they considered miracles performed.
Recounting innumerable perils in image and text, from falling out of a building, boat, or infant’s car seat, to falling off a horse or a Vespa, the ceramic panels curve around arches, climb over doors and windows, and march along columns and corridors. . A few panels are whimsical, although I doubt that was what the craftsmen who created them intended. There are both elegant and clumsy illustrations, ranging from sketchy to intricately detailed, from down-home to sophisticated. All of this is set within an overarching thematic thrust: calamity, with an undercurrent of gratitude . . . or the other way around, depending on where you’re coming from.
Difficult stories simply told, the church’s painted terracottas are well done, but the overall spirit, combination of tales, and decorative nature of the place are better. Not one inning or nine: extra, extra innings. Modest, charming, and surprisingly upbeat, this graveless cemetery filled with nameless headstones that celebrate survival is an up-close, heartfelt, brilliant yet somewhat dumbed-down dollhouse version of far more famous, masterly, and sublime Italian panel-added-to-panel-added-to-panel efforts. Madonna dei Bagni dwindles if compared to the Giotto-filled (Upper) Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi or Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But that’s okay; it’s healthy for art to flex its muscles in both grand and subtle ways, causing art lovers to flex their eyes, minds, and hearts accordingly.
Life is an additive process. We do this and then that; we go here and we go there. Experiences — even inspirations — accumulate. Intangible “stuff.” Sure, life also subtracts: Yogi Berra’s recent death, for example. But if we’re talking about the Church of Madonna dei Bagni, we’re talking about adding on.
Painters swirl brushes, ball players swing bats, butchers cleave meat. The passion with which the best apply their skills blurs boundaries. And they add options. A butcher by trade, Federico Mucci spent many more hours wielding a cleaver than a brush. His next-door neighbor probably had no idea he even owned a paint set. But my father’s friend had taken time away from weighing meat so he could paint an act of kindness for my dad. His portrayal of quilted hills and valleys was probably not a masterpiece, although I remember it as one. By art school standards it may not even have been good. But Mr. Mucci was my first art inspiration. Or was it Yogi Berra, an artist at and behind the plate? Perhaps it was the rivalry between Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, or their interaction with the Yoge. Who cares. Inspirations are not meant to be ranked. I was no more taken by the diamond of green, rendered black-and-white on TV, that filled the infield of Yankee Stadium, than I was by the surrounding terre vertes of Fred Mucci’s canvas. Yogi and company, Mr. Mucci, and the dastardly Wile E. with his “beep-beeping” prey did not compete for my childhood heart. Each had it . . . well before I ever heard of artists like Giotto or Michelangelo.
Truth is often unimpressive or embarrassing — so unimpressive it often goes unnoticed or so embarrassing you hope no one notices. Although it’s seldom discussed, most of us are introduced to our professional/ personal/spiritual passions through mundane, overlooked, sometimes ridiculous sources (Wile E. Coyote?). That doesn’t make those inspirations any less real or deep. Ignoring or denying unspectacular influences and passions can get in the way of personal insights and life’s richness.
A commonplace circumstance can inspire a deep connection with an artist, a work of art, a locale, or with oneself. My childhood Jersey apartment, with its backyard strip of train tracks, led me to Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925). His canvas, in turn, inspired several of my paintings, room-sized installations, poems, and a novel that I published, even though I didn’t identify any of the connections until midway into the undertakings. After reading my novel, my older sister, Marsha, reminded me that as a child I was obsessed with the train just beyond the window of the bedroom we shared. And she reminded me how much I enjoyed watching the harmless, indestructible villain, Wile E., getting flattened by a locomotive. To this day, two great, simple pleasures of mine are watching trains go by and walking train tracks. It’s a little like my urge to spit into the Guggenheim Museum’s shallow ground-floor pool when I look down from the building’s top ramp. What is it about gut instincts and bird’s-eye views? Madone, nothing beats the grand, dizzying delight of a tender-age inspiration.
Fred Mucci inspired in me a long-lasting gut instinct that draws me to, and makes me want to draw, landscapes — panoramic ones in particular. What ever happened to Mr. Mucci’s simple canvas framed big and fancy? Damn, I loved it. Still do, though I haven’t seen it in half a century.
Or maybe I see it every time I look down from the medieval Umbrian hilltop town of Montecastello, where I have taught and painted for the past ten summers at what is now called the International Center for the Arts (ICA), with the Church of Madonna dei Bagni nestled into gently rolling hills just a quick drive away.
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“Madone!” That’s what my father would exclaim when taken by surprise. Bad or good, it wouldn’t matter. The Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson steals home during the 1955 World Series. Yogi Berra is behind the plate. “Safe!” cries the umpire. With an Italian accent and hand motion, my dad screams, “Madone!” I figured he picked up the exclamation from his customers who, for the most part, hailed originally from Naples or Sicily or other nearby southern regions.
Although to my knowledge, no blood from that part of the world coursed through Milton Nemett’s veins, he enthusiastically breathed in all things Italian. Even his favorite ballplayers, like Joe DiMaggio and, of course, Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra, shared that heritage. It’s numbing to think that half them seasoned sonsabitches were younger then than my own son and daughter are now.
“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Leave it to Yogi to spin time like a yo-yo. (Of course, he was a spinner of words, too. Brilliant and ridiculous at once — no one spun them better than that philosophizing eighteen-time All-Star with but an 8th grade education.)
It would take fifty-five years before I happened to discover that Madone! was more than a sound or verbal reflex. My discovery occurred while I was sitting in a small piazza in Montecastello. Looking up from her newspaper, an old lady exclaimed: “Madonna! Un ladro scappa con l’orlo!” Rough translation: Mother of Jesus! A thief ran off with the scream! Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893–1893) was her favorite painting. Said she liked it ’cause she could hear it. Yeah, too bad it was made by a straniero, but otherwise . . . Her neighbors feigned interest, momentarily. I, on the other hand, was transfixed. Not by the theft of a painting, but by the swiping of a vowel.
Madonna. So that was it. All these years my father and I had been invoking the Virgin Mary. Even at my Bar Mitzvah. I can still recall his proud shush of a “Madone” after I sang my haftorah. There in the piazza, the final “a” that had been swallowed, as is the Southern Italian custom with words ending in a vowel, had been spit out.
Ironically enough, another important Munch painting entitled “Madonna” was stolen along with “The Scream.” Despite the red halo-like form, this Norwegian Mater Dolorosa is probably not the virgin one. Though an iconic painting in its own right, whoever she is, she got second billing by the media — if that. For me, however, on that August afternoon, “Madonna” loomed large, sort of lost and found at once. But that day in Montecastello, a screamer had its say, trumping the haloed, unholy lady.
Eight years later, once again fame reigned. Number 8 stayed home with his catcher’s mitt and bat. But religion, sex, and celebrity showed up in the form of songs and painted-on pants, as Madonna, the Pop superstar (not Madonna the virgin, though she did sing her famous hit where she compares herself to one), performed at Yankee Stadium during her MDNA Tour.
I wouldn’t have waited until this summer to be touched for the very first time by the Church of Madonna dei Bagni, but I had never heard of it before. It’s not famous. The good news is that the lack of national and international attention devoted to the sanctuary of Madonna dei Bagni has allowed this shrine of happy endings to retain its purity by keeping it off the tourist map.
By contrast, “The Scream,” which was recovered two years after it was stolen, is one of the most “seen” images in the world. Yet it is almost impossible to see, or hear, it as the artist intended. From t-shirt ripoffs to emoji takeoffs, the “too-big-for-its-own-good” image has been corrupted by its own fame ?.
Lack of notoriety does not guarantee security. In 1980 about two hundred painted tiles within the Church of Madonna dei Bagni were stolen. So the small Casalina sanctuary shares a sad and shameful connection with “The Scream” and the ambiguous, provocative painting called “Madonna,” as well as the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Montclair, New Jersey, where priceless memorabilia, like Berra’s 10 World Series rings, along with love letters he wrote over the course of 65 years to his wife, Carmen, were stolen last year. If you were a Yankees fan in 1955, I guess you can also throw into this mix Jackie Robinson’s controversial World Series steal of home. (The normally soft-spoken Yogi always vehemently insisted the Yanks were robbed by the call.) Regarding the theft at Madonna dei Bagni, some of the plaques that were broken and left behind were pieced back together, and thankfully, many of the artworks were recovered, while others were reproduced from photographs of the originals. And so today the interior apparently looks much like it did before the violation.
Due to the small scale of all the terracotta panels, as well as the modesty and relative obscurity of the setting, the Madonna sanctuary is quiet, making its stories easy to take in. Its maiolica masses whisper. So very different from the thrilling din that I remember at Yankee Stadium, where the volume was turned way up, as thousands of raucous bleacher creatures and box-seaters rooted their team on.
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I moved to Baltimore forty-five years ago and slowly became an Orioles fan. Now when I watch the Yanks play, I root against them. But they win a lot. I bet it’s ’cause my dad is cheering them on from a bird’s eye view in the upper grandstands alongside a mantled Mary, all her vowels securely in place. She’s smiling. Don’t often see that. Bet she likes her high-up, panoramic seat. Perhaps it makes her feel closer to God. Probably doesn’t know the first thing, or care, about baseball, but she’s enjoying the enthusiasm, running commentary, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks of the most important guy in the park.
Importance comes in different shapes and sizes. My first visit to Madonna dei Bagni moved me as much as my last visit to the Sistine Chapel. I know they’re not in the same league, but there it is. Likewise, Federico Mucci’s mountains are as dear to me as Cezanne’s. Go figure. But then, personal importance and historical importance, like inspirations, are not contests. And sometimes average is exceptional, like the maiolicas that fill Madonna dei Bagni. Like Yogi.
Even road runners run out of breath. Berra, the great competitor, just completed his spectacular run. No crazy coyotes in sight. Thanks for the memories, Yoge. Talk about an inspiration! And a marathon: player, manager, philosopher, youth, Navy veteran, family man, old man . . . Along with millions of others, I am, of course, sorry to see him go, but as the beloved Hall-of-Famer himself once said: “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”